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Lebed: The Next Hope?

A new conventional wisdom is emerging among analysts, journalists, and even some government officials in the West who see former Security Council chairman Alexander Lebed as the last great hope for Russian reform. No one doubts that if free and fair elections were held in the immediate future, Lebed would be the obvious front runner. What is troubling, however, is how Lebed's front-runner status in the polls and opposition stance against the current regime has translated into rather uncritical thinking about what his election might mean for the future of Russian markets and Russian democracy.

In the eyes of many Western analysts, Lebed's most admirable trait is that he is honest, has integrity and keeps his word like a soldier. This set of traits is contrasted with the Chernomyrdin/Chubais/Berezovsky lot who are characterized as corrupt, dishonest, stealing from the state, etc. While I can agree with much regarding the latter characterization, I am not so sure that Lebed is qualitatively in a different category.

Who have been his allies and backers? Well, he started his political career with former Congress of Russian Communities leader Yury Skokov, a shadowy, behind-the-scenes, Kremlin insider with a dubious financial empire. What does this choice of allies say about Lebed?

After his falling out with Skokov (a pattern he has repeated often with his allies), Lebed then cut a deal with Yeltsin. The deal was negotiated by former bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov and then approved by the team of presidential administration chief Anatoly Chubais. His money for the campaign came from many of the same bankers who backed Yeltsin, including Deputy Security Council Chairman Boris Berezovsky. In making these deals, Lebed lied to Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky about his interest in the Third Force right up until the last weeks of the election.

Obviously, Lebed had no moral qualms in dealing with the very people whom he now opposes. At the same time, he had not even a second thought about screwing Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, the one guy in these electoral deals who truly did represent what I would call the "democratic opposition." Lebed then sided with these same folks to become head of the Security Council. After he left the government, he continued his relations with Korzhakov and helped him get elected in his own home district.

Skokov, Korzhakov, and Berezovsky have one thing in common: They have been allies of both Yeltsin and Lebed. Yet, when Yeltsin cuts a deal with these characters, he is a bad guy. When Lebed does so, it goes unnoticed.

Just as Lebed gets the light treatment when it comes to his allies, his ideas and policy reforms also have not been critically viewed in the West. With a few notable exceptions, such as the RAND study on Lebed and John Dunlop's piece in the current issue of SAIS Review, we know very little about Lebed's views on foreign policy. Because he has been saying the "right" (which is to say American) things on NATO expansion lately, most of our accounts of his foreign policy views make him out to be more reasonable than the current government. And yet, we also know that Lebed said in the past that the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the equivalent of the beginning of World War III.

Will the true Lebed please stand up? What about his views on the Commonwealth of Independent States? While he managed to restore peace during his stint in Moldova, he did so as an occupying force. Would he restore peace in eastern Ukraine in a similar way if things got out of control there? On economic reform, he could not distinguish between the economic platforms written by neo-liberal Vitaly Naishul and protectionist Sergei Glaziyev. That's pretty scary. On democracy, he has made very few inspirational remarks. When push comes to shove, he's ready to sacrifice individual rights for law and order. But don't be fooled by the conventional wisdom about Russian preferences on this issue: Opinion polls actually show that most Russians would not make that trade-off. Moreover, law and order has fallen well behind wage arrears and even unemployment as issues of concern for Russian voters.

It goes without saying that Lebed has had no governmental experience save his brief tenure in the Security Council. Granted, he accomplished a lot in a short period of time. And yet, even his monumental achievement of ending the war in Chechnya is rather paradoxical. After all, Lebed left the "heavy lifting" on Chechnya for someone else, five years down the road.

Finally, it is curious to note how little attention in the West is given to those who, in my view, still do speak up and out for the right things in Russia. Even if such people cannot win the next election, their continued presence will be absolutely central to future democratic renewal in Russia.

I do not want to be misunderstood. I do not raise these questions about Lebed in order to defend the current government. Nor do I want to prejudge the general. He says and does a lot of things that I respect. I just want to urge caution before jumping on his bandwagon.

Following the lead of many of my "democratic" friends in Russia in the late 1980s, I jumped on the Yeltsin bandwagon early on, thinking that he was going to rid the Kremlin of corruption, build democracy and promote economic reform. Yeltsin, of course, never lived up these expectations. Having been burned once, many of Russia's democrats have been more cautious in jumping on the Lebed tank this time around. Shouldn't we in the West also be a bit more cautious and a bit more critical?

Michael McFaul is assistant professor at Stanford University and senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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